Buôn Đôn Suspension Bridge Tourism Centre has gradually switched to an elephant-friendly tourism model such as watching, taking pictures with, interacting with and feeding elephants. — VNA/VNS Photo Hoài Thu

Killing elephants for their tusks and cutting off elephant tails to "steal fur" have not been uncommon occurrences in the Central Highlands of Vietnam over the past decades.

Đàng Năng Long, a famous elephant trainer nicknamed "The Elephant King", said he had to both cry and grit his teeth to pull the tusks out of his recently deceased elephant to prevent wrongdoers from desecrating the elephant's grave.

The tragedy of elephants

In the final days of July, during the early rainy season in the basalt region, a group of reporters from Nhân Dân (The People) newspaper ventured to the elephant graveyard in Buôn Đôn (Đắk Lắk Province). Since it wasn't the peak time, the heart of the Central Highlands tourist area was quite deserted. The shared tomb of the elephants Pắc Kú and H’Panh stood quietly beneath an old tree.

Elephant keeper Nguyên Ksor, who possesses an over-40-year-old elephant, rode his old motorbike through the rain to meet the reporters near the tomb area. The late afternoon sun pierced through the drizzling rain, creating a solemn atmosphere.

When asked about Pắc Kú, Ksor said that for almost 15 years, no one could forget the painful death of the great figure with the most beautiful tusks in Buôn Đôn. The story goes that Pắc Kú was captured by the Gru tribe in 1978. After six months of "learning to live with humans," Pắc Kú began to integrate and became the leader of the local elephant herd.

In 1988, a person from Chư Sê District (Gia Lai Province) visited Buôn Đôn. Seeing the beautiful and gentle Pắk Kú elephant, they had their family members bring their belongings to trade for it. It wasn't until 21 years later that the owner of the Buôn Đôn ecotourism area used Pắk Kú to serve in the tourism industry. By this time, Pắk Kú had grown strong with tusks nearly 1m long. However, it was these very tusks that brought tragedy to the Buôn Đôn elephant.

One late afternoon in October 2010, Pắk Kú was released into the forest. That very night, a group of wrongdoers doused him in gasoline and set fire to his head and rear. Not stopping there, Pắk Kú endured more than 200 machete strikes before managing to snap the rope and escape. Despite the subsequent efforts of top experts to save him, Pắk Kú remained forever in the wilderness.

Even official authorities compiled statistics, revealing that during the ordeal, Pắk Kú suffered exactly 217 machete wounds.

After the elephant's death, the ecotourism area's leadership enlisted the help of the district police force in Buôn Đôn, along with military units stationed in the area, to guard and protect the elephant's body for three consecutive days. This was done in order to build a grave and bury Pắk Kú.

Equally tragic is the case of H’Panh. On one forest excursion, the 55-year-old female elephant fell into a trap set by "elephant bandits" and died. H’Panh was later brought back for burial alongside Pắc Kú in the elephant graveyard right at the entrance to Bản Đôn.

"Elephant king" Đàng Năng Long directly experienced the pain caused by the "elephant bandits". Even now, he can't forget the image of his two elephants having their tails cut off for their fur. The two incidents were only 17 days apart. The elephants lost blood and died just three weeks later.

The subsequent criminal case record states: In March 2010, two young men residing in Đồng Nai and Đắk Lắk conspired to steal elephant tails. Armed with bone-cutting knives, when they encountered Long's elephant H’Tuk, they heartlessly severed the tail to sell for 20 million đồng.

Driven by a blind belief that elephant fur and tusks would bring good luck to the owner, one action multiplied into ten, and ten multiplied into a hundred, leading to an unexpected calamity for the elephants of the Central Highlands. In Đà Lạt, also in 2010, two tourist-serving elephants had their tails brutally severed by wrongdoers.

Subsequently, in order to protect the elephants from the threat of profiteering, the Gru community had to devise ways to safeguard their elephants. They gradually cut the elephants' tails so that no one could easily steal or cut off their tails when they were alone. They also gradually filed down the tusks to reduce their allure. However, all of these actions were carried out according to strict principles. The M’Nông customs stipulated that before cutting an elephant's tusks, they must first perform a ritual to worship the elephant god Nguăch Ngual.

Regarding the tradition of cutting elephant tail fur, Y Thanh Uông, an elephant keeper from Yang Tao in Lắk District, explained that this was originally unprecedented. In the past, the Gru would only use brushes to groom the elephants' tails, and any shed fur would be kept and gifted to relatives and friends. However, to preserve the elephants' lives, elephant keepers like Y Thanh Uông had to take more drastic measures.

"No one wants this, but if we don't do it, the elephants' lives will always be threatened," sighed Uông.

It is for this reason that a somewhat humorous yet poignant story emerged: When an elephant passes away, its owner is once again faced with the challenge of finding a way to bury it.

Funeral rites for elephants

Long, who owns the most elephants in the Central Highlands, sighs when talking about elephant protection. He possesses a collection of photos depicting the tragic scenes of his elephants being stolen and killed.

Long recounts that according to tradition, when an elephant passes away, the owner and family members will select a good piece of land deep within the forest to create a burial mound. On the day of the burial, a glass of liquor is poured onto the ground to ask the earth deity to allow the elephant's remains to rest there. At this time, all of the elephant's belongings, from clothing (male elephants are buried with a loincloth, while females wear a yếm - a traditional upper garment), bells, pottery, utensils, copper rings, and even smoking pipes, are brought out and neatly arranged in preparation for the funeral ceremony.

During the ceremony, the first to bid farewell are the women in the family, who walk around the elephant. The mournful cries echo through the deep forest. The M’nông people do not dig a pit but use forest branches to cover the elephant. In the case of male elephants, there is an additional ritual of "tying the tusks."

"The chosen piece of land for the elephant's burial mound is situated next to a large tree. When an elephant passes away, we bend a branch of the tree, tie it securely to the elephant's tusks, and then proceed with the water burial. Over time, the elephant's remains will decompose. At this point, the branch will hoist the elephant's tusks high towards the sky. "This is also the time when elephant keepers are allowed to take the tusks home for storing," Long recounts.

After the elephant's remains rest in the "beautiful peaceful tomb", some family members will remain at the burial site to light a fire for warmth for two to three days, sometimes even up to a week. This gesture expresses their affection, sorrow, and perhaps aims to make the elephant feel warmer as it transitions to the other side. About a week after the elephant's passing, on the day the tomb is opened, the family will come to pay respects. The elephant's owner will stand before the tomb, sharing words and memories that bind them and the animal together over a long period.

However, these sacred memories now only exist in the past. Many elephant burial mounds have been desecrated almost immediately after being covered with forest branches. The tusks are plundered, and the tails are severed. Bloodstains mar the red earth, as the pain of the forests silently weeps. The anguish was so profound when an elephant died king Long had to remove a part of the elephant's tusks before its burial.

At times, he even had to go against century-old traditions by personally attaching rocks to the elephant's body and then sinking it into the full waters of Lake Lăk during the water-rich season, to prevent wrongdoers from locating the elephant's remains.

"The ethnic groups of the Central Highlands consider elephant burial grounds as sacred places. But these sacred sites have been invaded far too many times," he said.

At the time of the reporters' visit to the Central Highlands, the situation of the region's elephants remained dire. In Lắk District, local elephants still carry tourists across vast lakes, waiting for the realization of plans to lessen the burden on these elephants by reducing their workload. Products made from elephant ivory, such as rings and bracelets, were openly displayed for sale in jewelry shops in cities like Pleiku (Gia Lai), Buôn Mê Thuột, and even in the "land of elephants" at Lake Lăk in Đắk Lắk.

After some persuasion, the owner of a souvenir shop next to the Lake Lăk Tourism Management Office brought out a bracelet claimed to be made from authentic Central Highlands elephant ivory. She mentioned that this jewelry was originally crafted for her "elder sister," but out of respect, she decided to sell it for VNĐ7 million (US$280).

To enhance our confidence, the shop owner even demonstrated how to distinguish real and fake ivory: "Real ivory will exhibit cross-hatched lines when examined under a light source, whereas fake ivory won't show these characteristics and might be made from synthetic resin or animal bone."

In Buôn Đôn (Đắk Lắk), after being contacted, an elephant keeper even directly brought elephant tail fur to sell to journalists for VNĐ200,000-300,000 (US$8-12), claiming: "This is 100 per cent genuine elephant tail fur." They advised us to make future purchases through Facebook due to the sensitive nature of the matter.

In Gia Lai Province, we easily found similar products in souvenir shops at the international border crossing in Lệ Thanh (Đức Cơ). Although they displayed fake ivory products outside, when customers expressed interest, the owner of the Si Li Na shop would immediately retreat inside and retrieve a basket of "genuine elephant" products.

"These are the molars of young elephants. Here we have femur bones and tail fur. We only have two or three ivory rings left," an elderly man at the counter enthusiastically said to us.

Seeing our skepticism, the shop owner presented a "tooth of an elephant's jaw," highlighting the remaining traces of tooth roots. The elephant's femur bone, about the size of a forearm, was offered for VNĐ1 million (US$40). Additionally, there was half of another elephant's tooth.

"Previously, this tooth segment was longer, but a customer bought it recently, so I cut off half," the shop owner added.

The bundle of elephant tail fur is "priced" at VNĐ500,000 (US$20) per strand. Upon casual observation, one can easily notice that parts of dried meat still cling to the base of the fur strands – evidence that they were directly removed from the elephant. When asked about their origin, the shop owner asserts: All the products originate from Laos, as there are very few elephants left in the Central Highlands. Moreover, due to low demand, the trade has been rather sluggish. Consequently, for several months now, the owner hasn't imported new stock. — VNS